A year into what promises to be U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman’s toughest campaign, staffers say the biggest challenge is matching the energy of the candidate himself.
“Trying to keep up with Mike Coffman is an exhausting job,” says Coffman campaign manager Tyler Sandberg. “Our daily life is trying to keep up with Mike Coffman. We may be half his age, but we’re trying to keep up with him.”
The Aurora Republican is seeking a fourth term representing Colorado’s 6th Congressional District and is facing perhaps his most determined — and so far most evenly matched — competitor to date in former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who launched his campaign a year ago to represent the swing district encompassing portions of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.
Sandberg says he was “bowled over” when the campaign sent out invitations to its kickoff last month and more than 200 supporters showed up on a Saturday afternoon when, he notes, he had expected maybe 30 to turn out.
“Normally, no one’s excited this early on in the race,” he says, “but being the hottest race in the country — and now with (Senate candidate U.S. Rep.) Cory (Gardner) getting in there — I think there’s a real energy out there, and we’re finding surprisingly strong reception for people wanting to get involved early and often.”
It’s a frantic pace at Coffman’s reelection headquarters, on the seventh floor of the southern of the two massive Marketplace towers near Parker Road and East Dartmouth Avenue. (From a corner of the office — it boasts what Sandberg calls the best view of any campaign office in the country, with snow-capped peaks to the west and possibly portions of Kansas visible to the east — the Romanoff campaign headquarters can be made out through the trees a couple blocks to the west, toward South Havana Street.)
“We will build the strongest field effort that the 6th CD has ever seen,” Sandberg says. “We’re already out in the neighborhoods knocking on doors and Mike’s already calling undecided voters. Going door to door, if people are undecided, we get Mike on the phone with them personally.”
There’s a constant hum of activity as volunteers hand-address mailings — Sandberg says that “personal touch” is a hallmark of the campaign — and stage an already robust door-to-door campaign, part of “building a stronger ground effort than what I think you’ve seen Republicans do in the past,” Sandberg predicts, along with regular fundraisers and meetings with community groups. But no assessment of a Coffman campaign would be complete without mentioning the pushups.
“He’s up at 4 a.m. every day, and he still does 500 pushups every single day — he’s got the scars on his palms to prove it and the holes in his suit jackets,” Sandberg marvels. “He does it before votes, between fundraising calls, between contact calls — he’ll do a hundred calls to undecided voters and a hundred pushups, a hundred calls to undecided voters and a hundred pushups.”
It’s that steady determination that marks Coffman’s approach to public service, which has included a military career spanning more than three decades and elective office since 1988, his supporters say. In more than 20 years running for office from Aurora, Coffman has only lost one election, a bid for the Aurora City Council in the late 1980s. Since then, he’s racked up wins representing state House and Senate seats and won two terms as state treasurer. He stepped down from that post in 2005 to serve a tour in Iraq, won a brief reappointment to the seat and launched a successful run for secretary of state, where he served two years before winning a crowded primary for the congressional district then represented by the retiring Tom Tancredo.
But there’s no denying that the race against Romanoff to represent an almost precisely evenly divided seat — after redistricting, the heavily Republican 6th CD became one of the most competitive in the country — will take a different kind of campaign than any Coffman has run in the past. (In 2012, the first election run under the new boundaries, former state Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, came within 2 points of unseating Coffman. President Barack Obama actually carried the district, although both sides acknowledge that the electorate will be markedly different this time around.
Sandberg says the campaign has taken to heart the conclusions of the Republican National Committee’s “Autopsy” report, a soul-searching assessment intended to determine why Republicans fell short in 2012, and ramped up outreach throughout the Aurora-centric district, which is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country.
“I think the real lesson is you have to show up, you can’t just show up in October and ask for a vote, you have to get out there,” Sandberg says. You have to go there early and often, listen to people’s concerns,” and also leverage the powers of incumbency by doing the kind of things only a sitting member of Congress can do for voters.
“As a congressman, the best thing he can do is helping constituents, helping people with immigration issues, helping people with VA loans,” Sandberg says. Aurora’s ethnically diverse population includes plenty of members of the Asian community, he notes, who relate well to Coffman as small business owners. (Coffman’s seat on the House Small Business Committee and past experience running a small business resonate well with entrepreneurs, Sandberg points out.)
“That’s the lesson is to show up and listen. I think Republicans haven’t bothered to in the past and Mike’s making very big headway in a lot of communities just because he’s there and listening,” Sandberg says.
Part of that effort in a district that counts more than 80 languages spoken in its public schools includes the congressman learning Spanish, a project that involves a couple hours spent with Rosetta Stone every week and nightly phone calls with a tutor. (The redrawn 6th CD counts a Hispanic population of roughly 20 percent, and Romanoff is fluent in the language.)
“He’s getting surprisingly good,” Sandberg says. It makes a big difference when he shows up at community events and can communicate. “They appreciate his willingness to learn their language, especially first-generation who are more comfortable speaking in their native language.” Sandberg adds, “He can’t learn all the languages — he likes to joke that his Arabic is so poor he’d start a war by himself — but he learned a little Arabic when he was in Iraq, and the largest mosque in the state is in the district.”
With the state party’s help, the Coffman campaign is making steady inroads in the Asian-American community, too, campaign staffers say. Colorado Republicans have tasked Aurora Ogg, who has a background in small business, as a full-time field organizer engaging district voters with Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese heritage, and campaign sources say the effort is paying off. Coffman’s family history helps forge a “biographical connection” too, Sandberg says, since his father was a Korean War veteran and his mother grew up in Shanghai.
The Greenwood Village-based Starboard Group is handling Coffman’s fundraising, with Lydia Templin coordinating efforts. That involves lots of direct mail and setting up events, such as the candidate’s 59th birthday party fundraiser held last month a few blocks away at the Aurora Summit restaurant. The campaign has also brought prominent national Republicans to town, including GOP strategist Karl Rove and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was in town on March 28 for a fundraiser in Denver, staffers confirmed.
“This is the hottest race in the country and both sides are bringing in big names for fundraising — only ours didn’t vote for Obamacare,” Sandberg says, pointing to fundraising visits for the Romanoff campaign by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank.
Both campaigns posted more than $2 million raised through the end of last year, roughly half what campaign insiders say will be needed through the election. Outside groups are also expected to weigh in heavily, potentially dwarfing the spending by the candidates.
Coffman is typically in the district Friday through Monday, catching the first flight out of Washington and the last one available to go back, Sandberg says. “He’d much rather be in Colorado working with voters.”
As part of its early voter contact program, the RNC plans to open as many as a dozen offices around Colorado in coming months, and Sandberg says the Coffman campaign is “keeping our fingers crossed” that a good number will be in the 6th CD, including ones in Adams County and Highlands Ranch. “We’ll have quite the coverage across the district,” he vows.
“Mike’s feeling very confident right now. He’s doing things for his constituents, and ultimately, that’s the best way to get reelected is to be really good at your job,” Sandberg asserts.
See the April 11 print edition for pull photo coverage.